Seoul and Rome took different approaches to combating the spread with significant contrast in outcomes.
In South Korea, authorities are testing hundreds of thousands of people for infections and tracking potential carriers like detectives, using mobile phone and satellite technology. Both countries saw their first cases of the disease called COVID-19 in late January. On Sunday South Korean officials said 272 new cases had been reported over the previous 24 hours, bringing the total to 7,313 – the largest of any country outside China. South Korea has since reported nearly 8,000 confirmed cases, after testing more than 222,000 people.
In contrast, Italy has more than 12,000 confirmed cases after carrying out more than 73,000 tests on an unspecified number of people. Epidemiologists say it is not possible to compare the numbers directly. But some say the different outcomes point to an important insight: Aggressive and sustained testing is a powerful tool for fighting the virus.
Italy and South Korea are more than 5,000 miles (8,000 km) apart, but there are several similarities when it comes to coronavirus. Both countries’ main outbreaks were initially clustered in smaller cities or towns, rather than in a major metropolis – which meant the disease quickly threatened local health services. Both confirmed their first cases after doctors decided to ignore testing guidelines. South Korea, which has a slightly smaller population than Italy at about 50 million people, has around 29,000 people in self-quarantine. It has imposed lockdowns on some facilities and at least one apartment complex hit hardest by outbreaks. But so far no entire regions have been cut off.
Last week was critical to seeing if Italy’s coronavirus response had managed to halt the spread. If the numbers had begun to tail off, it would have suggested the containment measures had worked. They haven’t. The question is whether this is all too late. It’s believed the virus was circulating in Italy for weeks before it was detected. And there have now been cases in all 22 regions of the country. The government is now taking the most extensive containment measures outside of China. But is this a case of trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted?